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A Year Post-Flood, No Mandated Changes For Oil And Gas Operators

Nathan Heffel
An oil and gas site near the St. Vrain Creek. Metal berms replace earthen ones.

One of the more striking images during the September flood was of inundated oil and gas pads, washed out earthen berms and overturned storage tanks. In all, over 48,000 gallons of oil and condensate spilled.

While changes have been made in the industry to prepare for another flood, so far, they’re strictly voluntary.

Matt Lepore, director of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, said that while there were some visible spills, the situation could have been much worse.

“Frankly [it was] a relatively small number of spills, a relatively small volume of oil and gas that was released,” he said.

From his standpoint, the industry performed well during the flooding, closing off wells -- a process known as shutting in the well -- that were at risk of flood damage before waters rose.

The agency is looking at possible rule changes for sites near rivers and streams including anchoring storage tanks, installing impenetrable liners, and erecting fences. But for now, they’re strictly recommendations and no new rules have yet been approved.

Even so, some companies are making changes on their own accord. For example, in areas prone to flooding, earthen berms have been replaced with metal ones, which perform better in flooding.

“Earthen berms tended to wash away and potentially lead to greater impacts,” Lepore said.

Credit COGCC / http://cogcc.state.co.us/Announcements/Hot_Topics/Flood2013/COGCC_Flood_Impact_Zone.pdf
Screencapture of the COGCC 2013 Flood Impact Zone map. Orange dots mark oil/gas wells. Green dots mark impacted wells.

The agency has considered making that a rule change, and has talked with the industry about doing so. Lepore said the change would most likely be accepted without much resistance.

“Honestly I don’t think the rule making would be too controversial," he said. "I think most operators see the wisdom of the practices that we’ve recommended.”

Doug Hock, a spokesman with Encana Corporation, which has wells throughout Weld County, including some in low-lying areas, said he agreed with the recommendations laid out in the COGCC post-flood report. Although none of them are binding yet.

"These are recommendations that align with our best practices and you know, again we look at this, it really goes along with the measures we took," Hock said.

The flood, and the subsequent damage to their wells, cost the company several hundred thousand dollars Hock said. Overall the procedures in place at the affected well sites worked. This included the automatic shut-in of at-risk wells.

However, Sam Schabacker, director of the Colorado branch of Food and Water Watch, a group that believes hydraulic fracturing should be banned, said more needs to be done than leaving the industry to self regulate.

"There are no rule changes, there was no legislation," Schabacker said. "So Coloradans haven’t been protected from future flooding activities in any meaningful way."

“There are no new rules and regulations saying, for example, that you shouldn’t build in a flood zone, you should not be drilling in a place that typically floods and has historically done so in the state. So I think that it’s really astonishing to me, and us at Food and Water Watch, that after this unprecedented flood that nothing has resulted, no changes.”

Encana’s Hock said the company anchored tanks to concrete and installed impervious liners for spill mitigation – something he calls "best practices," before the flood.

To Schabacker, the potential for future spills caused by flooding is still too large.

"[We risk] tens of thousands of gallons of potentially toxic liquid washing down rivers where we grow a large percentage of our food crops, where we have people who live downstream from these areas, and there are over 6,000 almost 6,000 wells that are built in these floodplain areas, there are more being permitted every day, and there have been no changes," Shabacker said.

Discussions over regulations and rule changes as a result of the flood could come up at the next scheduled Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission hearing – including requiring metal berms to be installed around flood prone wells. However, COGCC's Lepore said that’s not officially on the agenda.

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